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February 4, 2012
You invite a friend to your child's birthday party, or maybe to your son's Bar Mitzvah.
"Absolutely!” he RSVPs, “I'm so excited to join you!"
The big day comes, and he doesn't show. No phone call, no email, not even a text. He's just not there. You call after the event to check that everything's okay. "Oh, I'm so sorry," he says, "something came up at the last minute. I meant to call or email, I just didn’t get around to it. I'm sorry I couldn't be there."
“Hey, no problem,” you say, “life happens. I totally understand. Don’t worry about it.”
And while you really mean what you say, a mental note is recorded. If it happens again, if he misses a lunch date that he committed to, or doesn’t show up to a meeting, a pattern is established. And in your mind, something subtle yet very significant takes place: You no longer have the confidence that he's a person who can be relied upon. When he says something, you don’t know that you can count on him to follow through.
Truth Telling Judges
Moshe's father-in-law, Yisro, joined up with the Jewish people in the desert. He saw Moshe standing from morning 'til night judging the people, and quickly realized the situation was untenable. “We must appoint judges to help you,” he advised his son-in-law. He then included a recommendation as to what qualifications the judges should have. Amongst his brief list, Yisro declared that the judges should be “anshei emes,” which would literally translate as “People of Truth.”
Well, that seems pretty obvious. What kind of lying judge would make it through the most basic of confirmation hearings?
Rashi, however, understands this phrase to include a qualification far more complex than one who merely speaks the truth and doesn’t lie. There are two distinct areas of “speaking the truth.” The simpler category is measured by whether or not one’s words are accurate in describing events that have already occurred in the past.
If I claim I sent you an email when I know I didn’t, I am lying. If I admit I didn’t get around to it, I am speaking the truth. While situations often arise where being truthful is a strong moral challenge, it is a basic principal of ethics to be truthful, and an obvious necessity for a judge.
There is another more sophisticated aspect to truth telling that relates to commitments we make, which will take place in the future. At the moment they are spoken, they cannot yet be defined as either true or false. In time, however, it will become clear.
There is a term for people who are truthful in the sense that what they commit to happens. They’re called, as Rashi defines them, baalei haftacha. They are people who instill confidence, people who are reliable, people who when they say something will carry it through. A judge needs to be more than just someone who doesn’t lie about something he has done in the past; he needs to be someone who instills confidence about what he will do in the future.
The Maharal of Prague, the great sixteenth century luminary, further explains the reason for this: Respect. A judge must be respected. It’s one of the most critical elements necessary for him to succeed. And to earn respect, a person must be reliable — a person who instills confidence. We simply do not respect someone who cannot be counted on to fulfill their commitments.
Earning the Respect of Our Children
We all want our children to respect us. In fact, we need our children to respect us. It’s one of the fundamental bedrocks of a healthy home environment. One of the ways we create that environment is by becoming baalei havtacha, parents who instill confidence in our children. Parents who can be relied upon. Parents who can be counted on to fulfill our commitments.
Children are often relentless in their requests to get what they want, whether it is ice cream, tickets to a baseball game, or getting their driver’s license. It’s sometimes tempting to just give in and say, “Sure, fine, I’ll get it for you tomorrow or maybe next week.” But tomorrow comes, and then the day after, and it doesn’t happen. We don’t take care of it. Maybe we never really meant it in the first place. Maybe we’re hoping they’ll just forget about it.
But children don't forget. They will remember that promise forever. And in their minds, what happens is the same subtle loss of respect that we experience as adults when a friend misses a lunch date. “I can’t rely upon my parents,” they say to themselves. “They say things to me, commit to getting me things, but I don’t really believe they’ll carry through on their promises. I have no confidence in them.”
The same is true when it comes to discipline. A parent who is constantly warning of this impending punishment or that imminent consequence but never carries it out is a parent who will not be taken seriously by their children. We owe it to our children to provide an environment in which they will naturally respect us and have confidence in our words. And when situations arise where we can’t fulfill our words (which are inevitable in life), we pretend as if we never said anything or committed to do something. We acknowledge what is happening, apologize, and provide another time or situation where we will be able to make good on our promise.
If we will be reliable, they will be respectful.